American as Apple Pie

How does Wayne Thiebaud capture contemporary life?

Cakes and pies stand in neat rows behind the glass counter at the bakery. Creamy frosting and thick filling make viewers’ mouths water. In paintings like his 1995 Cakes and Pies, cover, Wayne Thiebaud (TEE-boh) excels at delighting the senses and making stomachs growl. Still working at age 98, the artist has spent his career exploring the American way of life.

Looking at a painting by Wayne Thiebaud (TEE-bow) might make your stomach growl. The desserts in his 1995 work Cakes and Pies, cover, look delicious. The artist explores subjects that are part of American life, from classic bakery treats to city streets. He is still working at 98 years old!

Artistic Interests

Wayne Thiebaud portrait: Susan Watts/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images.

Born in 1920, Thiebaud grew up in California. As a young man, he held a variety of jobs that allowed him to express his creativity. He started out as an apprentice at the Walt Disney Studios, where he learned the art of cartooning by drawing characters such as Goofy and Pinocchio.

Then Thiebaud served in the United States Army from 1942 until 1945. During his service, he produced comics like the one below for the base newspaper. After his time in the Army, Thiebaud became a commercial artist, designing movie posters and working in advertising.

In the late 1940s, Thiebaud shifted his focus to fine art, making paintings to be hung on walls rather than reproduced in ads. “The more I got interested in layout and design, the more I was led to those examples in fine art from which they were derived,” he explains. Thiebaud went back to school and in 1960 became a professor of art at the University of California, Davis. He taught there for more than 30 years. Thiebaud believes that learning from his students helped him develop his own style.

Thiebaud was born in 1920 and grew up in California. He started his career as an assistant at Walt Disney studios. He learned the art of cartooning by drawing characters like Goofy and Pinocchio. Then he served in the United States Army from 1942 until 1945. During his service, he made comics like the one below for the military base newspaper. After his time in the Army, Thiebaud became a commercial artist. He designed movie posters and created art for advertisements.

In the late 1940s, Thiebaud became more interested in fine art, which is meant to be hung on walls. He went back to school, and in 1960 he became a college art teacher at the University of California, Davis. Thiebaud says that learning from his students helped him find his own artistic style.

Wayne Thiebaud, Cartoon from Yank: The Army Weekly, October 19, 1945. ©Wayne Thiebaud/Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

How does Thiebaud use a simple line drawing to convey a big idea?

My own sense is being American is a very important part of what I feel and do.

—Wayne Thiebaud

Learning the Rules

Thiebaud began painting to learn about the fundamentals of composition and form. Composition is the arrangement of objects within a work plus the choices the artist makes about how to render them. Thiebaud chose food as a subject because many foods are simple three-dimensional forms. He used still lifes to study composition, experimenting with color, light, space, perspective, and texture. In his 1963 Pie Counter, below, the artist paints the triangular slices with cool shadows. The lush brushstrokes mimic the texture of frosting and whipped cream.

Thiebaud didn’t expect anyone to take these paintings seriously as fine art, and he was surprised when they did. “When I painted the first row of pies, I can remember sitting and laughing . . . ‘Now I have flipped out!’” the artist recalls.

Thiebaud began painting to learn about composition and form. Composition is how objects are arranged in an artwork and how the artist shows them. Thiebaud often features foods in his work because food usually comes in simple shapes. He uses these shapes to experiment with parts of composition, like texture. His 1963 painting Pie Counter, below, is a still life, a work showing an arrangement of objects. He paints rows of triangular slices. Then he uses thick brushstrokes to re-create the texture of frosting.

Thiebaud was surprised when people considered his paintings like this one to be fine art. “When I painted the first row of pies, I can remember sitting and laughing . . . ‘Now I have flipped out!’” the artist says.

Wayne Thiebaud, Pie Counter, 1963. Oil on canvas, 29 13/16x35 15/16in. (75.7x91.3cm). Purchase, with funds from the Larry Aldrich Foundation Fund, New York, NY. Accession #64.11. Whitney Museum of American Art. ©Wayne Thiebaud/Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

In what ways does Thiebaud explore the fundamentals of art in this composition?

Pushing Boundaries

By mastering the basics of form and perspective in works like Pie Counter, Thiebaud developed the skills he needed to challenge the rules of composition. Late in his career, the artist created many paintings of San Francisco, including his 2001 San Francisco West Side Ridge, below. The artist disrupts traditional perspective to capture the city’s perilously steep streets and geometric buildings. Thiebaud’s background in cartooning helped him learn how to render scenes simply and effectively. His dedication to the fundamentals of art gives him the skills necessary to bend the rules while still creating plausible compositions like this one.

To many people, Thiebaud is a quintessential 20th-century artist. From the delicious foods that appear in bakeries across the country to dramatic cityscapes, Thiebaud’s bright, colorful paintings capture aspects of everyday American life.

Making works like Pie Counter helped Thiebaud learn enough skills to challenge the rules of composition. For example, his 2001 work San Francisco West Side Ridge, below, breaks the rules of perspective (the way space is shown in an artwork). Thiebaud paints extremely steep streets and geometric buildings. He exaggerates the city’s appearance.

Many people consider Thiebaud a classic 20th-century artist. His colorful artworks showing delicious foods or lively cities capture the American way of life.

Wayne Thiebaud, San Francisco West Side Ridge, 2001. Oil on canvas, 36x36in. (91.4x91.4cm). Gift of Sam Rose and Julie Walters, Washington, D.C. Accession #2004.30.5. Smithsonian American Art Museum. ©Wayne Thiebaud/Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

How does Thiebaud bend the rules in this painting?

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